Botticelli Part One

Rooms 10 to 14 once served as the upper part of the Medici theatre, but they are now filled with works by one of the Medici’s favorite artists: Sandro Botticelli. The rooms’ design as we see it today is a recent renovation, completed only in 2016. The rooms are meant to trace Botticelli’s development as an artist, which has been typically divided into three major stages: those works where the influence of his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, are still evident, those works that were commissioned during his time as a Medici client, and those works that reflect the mystical crisis of the late 1490s. All of his works, however, are defined by elegant lines, elongated, weightless figures, and a certain disregard for anatomical correctness, putting him somewhat at odds with the general movement of 15th century Renaissance art.

One of his first known works, Madonna of the Rose Garden (1469-1470), so named for the pink roses seen behind the Virgin and Child, is a rather conventional Madonna and Child.

Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli

Some scholars argue that Madonna of the Rose Garden was completed around the same time as Botticelli’s Fortitude due to the similar backdrop of a coffered arch, but others argue that it was created prior to Fortitude based on the slant of the floor. Indeed, in the Madonna of the Rose Garden, Botticelli strictly adhered to a technique known as central perspective, which allows artists to create three dimensional space on a flat surface. Problematically, however, the blind adherence to the technique causes the floor in the Madonna to look sloped rather than flat. Whereas, in Fortitude, Botticelli was willing to fudge the perspective a bit to make the floor appear more natural.

Regardless, the works are compositionally similar, albeit one secular, the other religious. Botticelli’s choice to place Mary within a rose garden was likely due to Mary’s titles as the “Mystical Rose” and “The Rose without Thorns,” which allude to her immaculate conception. According to Saint Ambrose, the Garden of Eden contained roses without thorns, but upon the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the roses grew thorns. Because according to Christian belief, Mary was born without sin, i.e. she was immaculately conceived, she is a rose without thorns; thus, Botticelli’s use of the rose motif. Mary is also depicted holding a pomegranate, a device Botticelli would continue to use throughout his career to symbolize the Virgin’s fertility as well as Christ’s Passion.

The St. Ambrose Altarpiece (The Converted Sisters) (c. 1470) is Botticelli’s first known altarpiece. Its name is a misnomer, however, because St. Ambrose is not depicted. It was, however, transferred from the convent of Ambrogio to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1808 (and from the Galleria to the Uffizi in 1946), which may have given rise to its name. Its other name, The Converted Sisters, was derived from the theory that it was from the convent of the Converted Sisters, but this theory has since been proven wrong.

Detail of St. Ambrose Altarpiece, Botticelli

The saints depicted in this altarpiece are Mary Magdalen (not pictured), John the Baptist (not pictured), Cosmas (not pictured), Damian, Francis, and Catherine of Alexandria. They are positioned, for the most part, according to late Medieval conventions, with Mary Magdalene and St. John the Baptist on the Virgin’s right (in the place of honor). St. John is placed closer to the Virgin than Mary Magdalene due to his role as the precursor to Christ and thus his appearance in the historical record before Mary Magdalene as well as his gender, which was considered superior by both the artist and (at least the male) contemporary viewers. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored on the Virgin’s left side, with St. Francis of Assisi standing closest to the Virgin and St. Catherine on his right. According to convention, however, St. Catherine, should have been placed ahead of St. Francis due to her closer proximity in time to Christ, leading art historians to believe that the altarpiece was intended for a Franciscan-linked location, which would explain his elevation over St. Catherine. That intention would also explain why St. Francis is depicted holding a reed cross, usually an attribute of St. John, and likely introduced here to emphasize St. Francis’ role as St. John’s successor.

The inclusion of Saints Cosmas and Damian have also led scholars to believe that the piece was either commissioned by a member of the Medici family or by the Guild of Physicians and Apothecaries, both groups of which Cosmas and Damian were patron saints. Saints Cosmas and Damian are typically portrayed together, as they were brothers (some sources claim twins). They were closely linked to the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, due to the play on the Medici name (“medici” is the Italian word for “doctors”). Moreover, Cosimo de’Medici, the founder of the dynasty, and his twin brother (who died young) were named after the two saints, making them the patron saints of Cosimo as an individual in addition to their role as his familial patron saints.

The influence of Lippi can be made out in the work’s overall composition as well as in the figures’ expressions:

But, scholars also believe that Botticelli was working under a new teacher, Andrea del Verrocchio (also teacher to Leonardo da Vinci), or at least working within Verrocchio’s orbit, because Fra Lippi had left Florence before the production of this altarpiece. Thus, this piece also reflects Verrocchio’s influence as well, evident in the metallic nature of the robes as well as the figures’ statuesque stances.

Portrait of a Youth with a Medal (1470-75) was once owned by Carlo de’Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo “il vecchio” de’Medici, but it is not clear who the sitter may be. Although the most likely candidate seems to be Botticelli’s older brother Antonio based on the sitter’s middle class clothing and his work as a goldsmith, denoted by the coin he holds in his hands, copies of which Antonio would have cast himself while working at the Medici court. Moreover, some art historians have noted the resemblance of the sitter to known self-portraits of Botticelli himself, which would lend credence to the belief that the sitter is his brother. Other possible candidates include Piero de’Medici, a youthful Cosimo de’Medici, or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici, yet one would expect if the sitter was indeed a Medici, he would have been depicted in the resplendent garments more typical of an upper class family.

Portrait of a Youth with a Medal, Botticelli

What we do know about this picture is that it demonstrates Botticelli’s leadership in contemporary portraiture. Prior portraiture was constrained by the traditional profile pose of the sitter, as exemplified in ancient coins depicting Roman emperors. Botticelli and several other innovative artists began picturing their sitters in three-quarters view, in the example of the Flemish. In fact, Flemish influences had fully penetrated Florentine thought. Compare the background of this work with that of Botticelli’s Florentine teacher, Fra Lippi:

Lippi’s is mystical and fantastic while Botticelli’s is steeped in realism and naturalism, which would become the new norm for portraits. Moreover, Botticelli painted the sitter’s hands, which typically were not included in portraits, but, obviously, the hands are necessary to exhibit the medal, so whether this was deliberately innovative or simply a means to an end is unclear.

The medal itself depicts Cosimo il Vecchio and is inscribed with the words “MAGNUS COSMUS MEDICES PPP,” meaning Cosimo de’Medici the Great, Primus Pater Patriae (First Father of the Fatherland). It is a cast made of pastiglia, not metal, and was either cast from the actual mold that made the real medal, which was cast between 1465 and 1469 to commemorate Cosimo, or from an impression of an already existing medal. To insert the pastiglia into the painting, a hole was cut in the panel, and the cast was affixed to it, making this work a multimedia piece. The medal is held over the heart, an organ associated with memory and sense impressions, and emphasizes the break from tradition and the beginning of a new age by juxtaposing the ancient Roman portrait with the new Renaissance style portrait.

And what could be more emblematic of the Renaissance than one of Botticelli’s best known works, La Primavera (1477-82). La Primavera was commissioned for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of the junior branch of the Medici family, on the occasion of his marriage to Semiramide Appiani in 1482.

La Primavera, Botticelli

It was the largest secular painting done in the Renaissance to date; the prior large scale representations of secular subjects were generally confined to tapestries woven in France and Flanders, which some art historians have argued explains the two-dimensional feel of La Primavera and the lack of linear perspective. Like those tapestries, the scene is sprinkled with flowers upon a dark grassy field.

Unlike most secular tapestries, however, the scene Botticelli chose to depict is thoroughly classical in nature. It is believed to be the story of Zephyrus, God of the West Wind, and the nymph Chloris as retold through multiple sources including, most famously, Ovid’s Fasti. According to the story, Zephyrus kidnaps Chloris, who, at Zephyrus’ touch, transforms into Flora, the latin goddess of the spring, and then marries Zephyrus.

Detail of La Primavera, Botticelli

[T]his is what the goddess replied to my questions (while she speaks she breathes from her mouth spring roses): ‘I who am called Flora used to be Chlōris. … ‘It was spring, I was wandering. Zephyrus caught sight of me. I began to leave. He pursues, I flee, he was stronger. ‘Boreas, having dared to carry off a prize from the house of Erechtheus, had given full right of rape to his brother too. The violence, however, he made up for by giving me the name of bride, and I have no complaint in my marriage-bed. ‘Spring I enjoy always, always the year is full of bloom, always the tree has leaves, the ground has fodder. I have a fruitful garden in the fields that are my dowry; the breeze warms it, it’s kept moist by a spring of clear water. This my husband has filled with noble flowers, and he says to me, “Goddess, have control of the flowers.”

Ovid, “Fasti,” Trans. Anne Wiseman & Peter Wiseman.

To modern viewers, the depiction of what really amounts to a violent sexual encounter would not be the most ideal of wedding gifts, but to Botticelli’s contemporaries, it served as a fitting conceit for marriage in 15th century Florence. At the time, women had little to absolutely no choice in husband, just like Flora. Once married, women, like Flora, were supposed to bring forth new life. Notice that no fruit nor blossoms are present in the upper right hand corner of the painting; it is only when Zephyrus touches Chloris and she is transformed into Flora that the trees begin to bear fruit, a nod towards fertility. Moreover, the Zephyrus is placed in front of two laurel trees (laurus nobilis), a reference to bridegroom, Lorenzo (Laurentius) di Pierfrancesco. Allegedly, the goddess Flora is a portrait of Giuliano de Medici’s mistress Simonetta Vespucci, although recent scholarship has questioned that assumption.

To the left of the Chloris/Zephyrus scene is Venus and her son Cupid, flying above her while firing his arrow of love, eyes covered to denote love’s blindness.

Spring comes, and Venus, and Venus’ winged courier Cupid runs in front. And all along the path that they will tread dame Flora carpets the trail of Zephyr with a wealth of blossoms exquisite in hue and fragrance.

De Natura Rerum V.737, Lucretius.

The trees around Venus act almost as a halo, radiating from her figure to create a semi-circle embracing her. Some scholars argue the clearing in the trees represent wings, and one even went so far as to claim that the clearing was a depiction of human lungs, signaling the recent phenomenon of human dissection increasingly practiced by Renaissance artists.

To the left of Venus and Cupid are the Three Graces. The Three Graces were a very popular subject in the ancient sculpting world, as it allowed an artist to show three different vantage points of the human body at once.

Mercury, the leader of the three graces and the messenger of the Gods, is also present; he is identifiable via his winged shoes and his caduceus (staff with serpents winding around it). Mercury was associated with the month of May, due to his mother, Maia, hence his inclusion in a picture depicting the spring. According to Virgil, he was also associated with dispersing the winter clouds: “Shepherding the winds before him with his want, he swam through the murk of the clouds.” Aeneid IV, 242-46.

Nourishing Venus comes, companion to her sister, and is followed by the little loves; Flora offers welcome kisses to her eager husband (Zephyr); and in their midst with hair unbound and bared breasts dances Grace, tapping the ground with rhythmic step.

Poliziano, Angelo, “Rusticus,” as translated by Miles J. Unger in Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’Medici.

Scholars have identified at least 138 species of different plants that have been accurately portrayed, one of which is an orange tree. Oranges were linked with Medici family, and in fact, oranges were commonly known as mala medica or palle medicee. Allegedly, this link had its roots in the belief that an orange grove located in the garden of the old Medici palace could foretell the family’s fortunes. If the orange grove blossomed, so too did the family, but if the orange grove failed to bear fruit, it was said that bad things were in store for the Medici.

Interestingly, the overall composition of La Primavera is likely based on Buonamico Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death.

Triumph of Death, Buonamico Buffalmacco (early 14th century)

Like the figures in La Primavera, the figures here are in an orange grove, standing on meadow punctuated with flowers. Above the figures, winged putti hover, just as Cupid hovers over the gathered figures in La Primavera. Similarly, no fruit is in the top corner (albeit the left-hand corner) of the trees, closest to the figure of death, who is approaching the gathering from a violent scene into a peaceful event – reminiscent of winged Zephyrus, who moves from the violent rape into the peaceful marital scene. Thus, Primavera begins with violence, while The Triumph of Death ends in violence. The theme of each piece is obviously drastically different, but the similarities in the composition are striking.

Interestingly, Flora and Zephyrus feature in Botticelli’s other large-scale secular painting, the Birth of Venus.

e drento nata in atti vaghi e lieti una donzella non con uman volto, da zefiri lascivi spinta a proda. gir sovra un nicchio, e par che ‘l cel ne goda.

and within, born with lovely and happy gestures, a young woman with nonhuman countenance, is carried on a conch shell, wafted to shore by playful zephyrs; and it seems that heaven rejoices in her birth.

Poliziano, Angelo. Stanzas Begun for the Joust of the Magnificent Giuliano de Medici, as Translated by David Quint.

Birth of Venus, Botticelli

The title, Birth of Venus, is actually a misnomer, as the episode does not depict Venus’ birth, but instead depicts Zephyrus and his wife Chloris/Flora blowing Venus towards the coast of Cyprus where she is greeted by a young woman, whom scholars believe is either one of the Graces or one of the Horae (also known as the Hours). Behind the Hora, there is an orange grove, but no blooms, indicating that Venus’ arrival is necessary for fertility. This work is first recorded by Giorgio Vasari, who described it as having been owned by the cadet branch of the Medici family since the mid-15th century, which makes sense as the scene depicts oranges, an emblem of the Medici family.

I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments….

Homeric Hymns VI 1-6.

The figures themselves are inspired by classical statues, such as the Venus de’Medici, a Hellenistic marble statue owed by the Medici family and of a iconographic type known as the Venus Pudica (“Chaste Venus”). For an in depth discussion of the Venus Pudica, I highly recommend Mary Beard’s two-part documentary series, The Shock of the Nude.

Despite its classical nature, the overall composition of The Birth of Venus borrows from the scheme commonly used to depict the Baptism of Christ.

Like St. John the Baptist, the Hora steps forwarded with her right arm raised. There are two figures to the left. Venus and Jesus stand still in the center. Thus, rather than a break from gothic tradition and a “rebirth” of so-called lost arts, the Renaissance was really about the fusion of the holy and the profane, the emphasis on community and the elevation of the individual, and science and the arts to create something startling and completely new.